WASHINGTON — To hear President Trump address the country’s premier anti-abortion event, you’d hardly recall this same president has racked up an astonishing string of personal sex scandals, including even criminal investigations of hush-money payments to multiple women that remain unresolved.
But when Trump became the first U.S. president to ever personally appear at the March for Life on Friday in downtown Washington, none of that mattered.
Trump rolled up, and said everything they wanted to hear. And the crowd of thousands went nuts for it.
“Every child is a precious and sacred gift from god,” Trump said. “When we see the image of a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of god’s creation.”
For many of Trump’s evangelical and Catholic supporters, his full-throated endorsement of the March for Life movement is the thing that makes his long, long history of personal peccadillos, divorces, affairs, ungodliness, lies, and sex scandals — never mind that he once identified as "pro-choice" — fade into the distant background. Trump announced his historic decision to attend the event in a surprise Tweet on Wednesday, the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. And when he hit the stage, he didn't disappoint.
The crowd roared whenever Trump name-checked anti-abortion groups like Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that’s been in a years-long legal battle over the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. That’s the signature healthcare policy of Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama.
His appearance was scripted, yet he came off more comfortable than he sometimes looks when reading from a teleprompter. He didn’t curse. He didn’t use schoolyard taunts. He spoke the language of the true believers.
“We see the splendor that radiates from each human soul,” Trump told the crowd. “As the Bible tells us, each person is wonderfully made.”
Viewers watching on cable news could see a split-screen image of Trump waxing lyrical about defending the unborn, while House Democrats held a press conference to accuse Trump of stomping on the Constitution by pressuring a foreign country, Ukraine, to investigate his 2020 rival Joe Biden. Nearby, on Capitol Hill, Trump’s Senate impeachment trial over the Ukraine scandal kicked off again moments after he finished speaking.
But at the rally, attendees heard Trump boast that “unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
That particular boast rang true to many of his listeners, including Olivia Duesenberg, a 21-year-old student at Colorado Christian University and a faithful evangelical.
Strong Christian faith and support for the anti-abortion movement represent “the most important thing” Duesenberg looks for in a candidate, she told VICE News.
“He gets a lot of flack for saying the stupid things that he does,” Duesenberg said of President Trump. “But in all honesty, he’s done a lot for the economy. He’s done a lot for business. And he’s done a lot for the pro-life movement.”
Asked if Trump’s tweets bother her, Duesenberg replied: “Absolutely.”
But he's done plenty to help the movement. Besides appointing two conservative Supreme Court justices, which helps ensure the high court’s rightward majority for perhaps a generation, he's also appointed more than a quarter of the country’s federal appeals judges.
On the funding front, he’s blocked abortion providers from participating in Title X, the only federal program dedicated to family planning. That’s forced Planned Parenthood out of the program, costing the reproductive healthcare giant — the anti-abortion movement’s biggest boogeyman — an estimated tens of millions of dollars.
As Trump listed his anti-abortion bona fides for the crowd, he also revived some of his favorite false claims about abortion, including that doctors who provide abortions in the later stages of a pregnancy will “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb right up until delivery.”
This is not true. Not only is infanticide illegal, but abortion very rarely take place late enough in pregnancy that the fetus is viable, which generally occurs around 24 weeks. Nationwide, just over 1% of abortions occur past 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“They’re coming after me because I’m fighting for you,” Trump told the crowd, to screams of approval. “And we are fighting for those who are fighting for life, and we will win.”
As Trump wrapped up his speech, cries of “Four more years!” erupted from the crowd. The 2020 presidential election was inescapable, as signs reading “I Vote Pro-Life First” and “I Vote Pro-Life” dotted the crowd. And while the March for Life is technically a nonpartisan event, it was no secret who most people were voting for: The back of the latter sign boasted an image of Trump and the words, “Most Pro-Life President. Ever.”
The sign was the work of Susan B. Anthony List, one of the most powerful anti-abortion groups in the nation. Earlier this month, it pledged $52 million to Trump’s reelection bid, in the largest election commitment in the group’s history.
After the rally wrapped up, marchers headed toward the Supreme Court to gather on its front steps. They frequently broke into call-and-response chants, ranging from the blandly agreeable (“We love babies! Yes we do! We love babies! How ‘bout you!”) to the political (“Hey ho! Hey ho! Roe v. Wade has got to go!”)
While the March typically doesn’t track its attendees’ ages, many of the people walking through the National Mall seemed to be on the younger side. High schools and colleges from across the country send groups of students; each group usually wears brightly colored hats to find each other in the crowd.
Ella Foley and Hattie Hanold, sisters from Michigan, both wore bright blue hats emblazoned with the words “March for Life.” Foley carried a “I Vote Pro-Life First” sign, and when asked who they’re voting for in 2020, the pair answered in one voice: “Trump.”
“Because he’s the most pro-life president,” they added, again in unison. Both said they only vote for candidates who oppose abortion.
“The fact that he came out to actually come out to this event today — the first president in sitting U.S. history — I mean, that speaks volumes to people,” Hanold said. “And the fact that he has appointed 187 federal judges to courts in the United States, I mean, proves that his value and his virtue lies in protecting children and protecting mothers.”
James Griffith, 19, said he doesn’t necessarily believe reports of Trump’s bad behavior anyway.
“I think we can all agree that some of the media is very slanted,” said Griffith, who came to the march with his church. “You don’t know [if] what you heard is true about him either, and what he may have done and what he hasn’t. So I’m in full support of him.”
And as long as Trump opposes abortion, Griffith said: “He’s got my vote just on that.”
Cover: Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during the annual "March for Life" rally on the National Mall, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)